To my mind, nowhere is the problem of the bloc-voting and the slate concept better demonstrated than in the Novella Category. Here is the short-list:
- Flow by Arlen Andrews Sr. (Analog)
- Big Boys Don’t Cry by Tom Kratman (Castalia House Press)
- One Bright Star to Guide Them by John C Wright (Castalia House Press)
- The Plural of Helen of Troy by John C Wright (Castalia House Press)
- Pale Realms of Shade by John C Wright (Castalia House Press)
If you love short SF, you read a lot of SF magazines, or you enjoy anthologies, that list may be baffling you. You might wonder why, since the Hugos are for the best work of the year, you have probably only read, or even heard of, one of those works. You might wonder why one press, which you’ve never heard of before, has four of the five works on the list.
Having read these works, here’s what I can say with confidence; if the splinter group (who call themselves Rapid Puppies) wanted to demonstrate with this list the kind of fine, solid story-telling that they think is getting overlooked due to the distraction of more “politically correct” fare, they’ve failed abjectly.
The best of the lot is “Flow” by Arlen Andrews Sr. This is the type of the story that the original slate group, the “Sad Puppies” frequently talk about and say they like. It’s a conventional story of exploration. The story opens with a wild ride on an iceberg down a rushing river. Rist, a person from the north, soon learns about the people from the Warm Lands. Andrews’s conception of adaptive changes and social changes on a far future earth is interesting. Rist’s reasoning, as he encounters new things, is fun to follow. He is fearful, nonplussed and enthusiastic throughout, and his decision at the end changes him from a dissatisfied son to a true adventurer. I liked the descriptions, and I disliked that women were treated as set dressing. I enjoyed the way Andrews let us know this was earth and showed us how humans have changed – and the ways they haven’t. That said, the story is slow, with a spike of jeopardy that the main character weathers too easily, and the psychological choice at the end may be too subtle, after the intimation of danger two-thirds of the way through, to be satisfying.
I didn’t love “Flow,” mainly because of the pacing, but I am angry that Mr. Andrews’s interesting world doesn’t get a better field of competitors than what follows.
“Big Boys Don’t Cry” by Tom Kratman is disturbing enough, and poorly enough written, to deserve its own post. In it, a sentient war machine, which identifies itself by the human gender-designation “female” for no apparent reason, uncovers the truth of its genesis and makes a fateful decision.
This story is way too long, and commits what has to be some kind of MilSF cardinal sin; it makes battle scenes boring. Instead of being a story, this is a collection of field notes for a Role-Playing Game. The ambush where “Maggie” is mortally wounded should be filled with tension and excitement. I mean, geez! C’mon, it’s an ambush! Instead the prose plods on with everything in exactly the same rhythm, until Kratman starts a paragraph (in the middle of a battle!) with this sentence, “Here a doctrinal problem interposed itself.” That is a quote.
While I read, I found that a doctrinal problem interposed itself for me too… Why was I still reading this? But I kept on. I read to the end.
“One Bright Star to Guide Them,” by John C. Wright… If I wanted to read Narnia fan-fiction I’d go do that. That’s really all I really have to say, but I’m going to say more anyway. If you’re going to serve up warmed-over Narnia as if it’s an original tale, then at least have the action sequences take place on the page, instead of having them happen offstage, narrated by a main character via stupefying monologues to other characters. And, dude, you can put wings on your majestic, talking, recently-resurrected lion all you want, but he is still Aslan.
“The Plural of Helen of Troy” is a time-travel story filled with the usual paradoxes, in a city of shifting timelines, run by the Time Wardens, where a hardboiled detective questions the motives of his client, who says he wants to kill the man who raped a beautiful woman. I liked the description of the city. Jacob, the detective, is an inconsistent character in some ways, but that is mostly due, I think, to the character narrating from an “older and wiser” future. The identity of the client and the rapist are supposed to be reveals, but it was easy to figure out who they are. The main problem here was that I didn’t care about any of these rather shallow characters. The second problem was that everything gets explained in an academic fashion, slowing down the action. “Helen of Troy” had a couple of strange editorial errors too. Specifically, the character of Queequeeg from Moby Dick has a small role here. In explaining the name, Jacob pronounces it for someone; “Quickwig.” Then, on two more occasions, he uses “Quickwig” as the character’s name. Where was the editor?
This reminded me of the Simon R. Greene’s Nightside books, only those are better.
In “Pale Realms of Shade,” another hard-boiled detective who was murdered has to figure out why his spirit is still hanging around. This has an interesting magical world and some nice descriptions. There is a lovely sequence involving St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a priest and a guardian angel that I liked very much. All too quickly, the story falls down a rabbit hole of strange, Wright-landian spirituality, with a gratuitous slap at Islam and an ending that is not supported either by the religion presented in the story or “real world” Catholicism. A cliché-loaded opening, internal inconsistencies (Lorelei “stamps her foot with anger” in one sentence; two sentences later we are told she is “good at hiding her anger.” No. No, she’s not,) and a muddled ending suffocate the glimmers of humor and actual story here. Things are further complicated by paragraph after paragraph of purple prose that does not advance anything.
Well, maybe it was just a bad year for novellas, right? Possible, although unlikely. I read very few in 2014, and I can tell you there were at least two as good or better than the ones on this list; “We Are All Completely Fine,” by Daryl Gregory, and “Yesterday’s Kin” by Nancy Kress come to mind.
The choices in this category made me understand why the Choice of No Award exists in the Hugos. “Flow” is a real story, but I would have loved to be able to compare it to some of the good published novellas of 2014. As it is, I don’t really think it’s fair for me to give Mr. Andrews a “best of a really rotten year” award. And this is why I’m angry at the bloc-voting fools who vandalized this category.